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New Notebook, Old Wireless Troubles

Brand new notebook PC, established wireless network waiting at home ... . Everything should just work, right? Our columnist gets a refresher course in troubleshooting.

By Ron Pacchiano

For the last few months my father's laptop has been giving him problems. Every time it did, guess who he called to come fix it? And it's never just to let me know that there is a problem. Oh no. Instead it's always an emergency and has to be addressed immediately.

Well, the other night, I was trying to finish a review when he called me with yet another emergency. This was the last straw and I decided that I would go and buy him a new computer. So I took a trip to our local Costco and found him a nicely equipped HP Pavilion dv8000z notebook PC with a 1.86GHz AMD processor, half of Gig of memory, 80GB hard drive, 17-inch LCD display, dual-layer DVD recorder and integrated 802.11b/g wireless adapter. Not a bad system for less then a $1000.

So with my father's new notebook in hand I headed to my parents house to set it up. Now, as is often the case, whenever I do something that is supposed to make my life easier, it usually ends up making my life more difficult. This situation was no exception. After completing the manufacturers' initial configuration, the next thing I needed to do was set up the wireless adapter to communicate with my parent's wireless network. Well, the wireless adapter saw the wireless LAN right away and I was even able to get it to authenticate to it with no drama. Within 3-5 minutes the notebook was online. I then proceeded to load the latest Windows Updates. This is when I started to notice a problem.

For some reason, the wireless connection was dropping every few minutes. I couldn't understand what would be causing this problem. I had run across this type of a problem before, but it's been so long I couldn't recall exactly what I needed to do to resolve it. I tired a bunch of different things. I updated the wireless adapter drivers, the PC firmware, my routers firmware and so on. I even attempted to call HP's tech support to see if they were any issues like this with this model notebook. (I know, I write about this stuff, but I'm not too proud to call tech support on occasion). Anyway, nothing worked, and after about an hour of messing around with this, I finally had a revelation.

It dawned on me that the last time I had ran across this issue it had something to do with the security settings. After a bit of exploring, I came across a setting I recognized that involved 802.1x authentication [define]. In the past, I've observed that the wireless signal will exhibit this behavior when the connection is configured to use 802.1x authentication, but your current hardware doesn't support it. If this was, in fact, the problem, then correcting it is pretty easy.

In order to get the wireless adapter to stop dropping the connection all you need to do is disable the authentication process. To disable it just follow these steps:

  1. Click Start, select the Control Panel and double-click the Network Connections icon.
  2. The Network Connections screen will appear. Right-click the Wireless Network Connectiont and select Properties.
  3. On the Wireless Network Properties page you'll see three tabs. Select the one that says Wireless Networks.
  4. Select your network connection from the list of available networks and press the Configure button.
  5. Now click the Authentication tab.
  6. The Authentication screen will open. Remove the check mark in Enable IEEE 802.1x authentication for this network
  7. Click OK to close the window and close all other open windows. Reboot your computer.

As soon as I disabled 802.1x Authentication, the notebook became much more stable and stopped dropping its connection. This particular solution worked for me, but there are numerous other variables that could interfere with the performance and reliability of your wireless network. The key to maximizing the efficiency of your wireless network is to follow a few basic principles:

  • Keep the number of walls and ceilings the signal must travel through to a minimum. Each wall or ceiling can reduce the range of your wireless devices. For optimal results, you should position your access points, routers and computers so that the number of walls or ceilings between them is minimized.
  • Building Materials make a difference A solid metal door or aluminum studs may have a negative effect on range. Try to position access points, routers and Computers so that the signal passes through drywall or open doorways and not other materials.
  • Make sure that the antenna is positioned for best reception by using the software signal strength tools included with your product. Increasing the height of the router or access point is also helpful.
  • Keep your product away (at least 3-6 feet) from other electrical devices that generate RF noise, like microwaves, Monitors, electric motors, UPS units and so on.
  • If you are using 2.4GHz cordless phones or X-10 (wireless products such as ceiling fans, lights, and home security systems), your wireless connection will degrade dramatically or drop completely. Anything using the 2.4GHz frequency will interfere with your wireless network.

    You could also compensate for a weak wireless signal by adding a repeater to your network. This would be positioned directly between your computer your wireless router. When a wireless signal is transmitted it is very strong. The longer it travels, the weaker it becomes. This continues until the signal has degraded beyond use. This is known has attenuation. The repeater works by picking up a weak wireless transmission and regenerates it. Once regenerated, the signal is rebroadcast; effectively doubling the range of your wireless network.

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